Brian Sewell

An article about art critic Brian Sewell by Deskarati Editor – Jim Robb

Brian SewellNow in his early eighties Brian Sewell is the most important art critic of his day. I have read and watched his work over the last decade and love his art, yes art. As an uneducated art lover, like many others, we generally seek out critics that ‘suit us’. We like our critics to confirm our opinions and praise our beliefs. This is not something confined to art, I notice it all the time in Politics, Science and probably life in general. But it is rare to love a commentator that quite often disagrees with you and especially one who throws your own opinions back in your face with such ferocity. That’s Brian.

Brian is the London Evening Standard’s art critic and has been since he replaced the avant-garde critic Richard Cork back in 1984. Although I was aware of him in my younger years, I had dismissed him as an old fuddy duddy. It wasn’t until his television work started in 2003 that he really captured my attention. He made a documentary about his pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostela in Spain called The Naked Pilgrim for British TV channel 5. This was an arts travelogue around Sewell’s Catholic pilgrimage, but also showed his own struggle with the loss of his faith. His vulnerability shone through which tempered my feelings toward him. From that time on, his critical, acerbic and sometimes down right bad mannered style became enjoyable. I got him. This is also something that Brian has taught me about art, it’s not until you understand the the artist (as best you can) that you can appreciate the work much better. This is a very good life lesson, not just confined to art.

Brian Sewell was the illegitimate son of composer Peter Warlock, who died before he was born. He was educated in London and was offered a place at Oxford University in the early 1950s but chose to go to the Courtauld Insitute of Art at the University of London. He was tutored by the infamous Anthony Blunt, the art historian who was found to be a Soviet spy in the early sixties. (When Anthony Blunt was exposed as a spy to the public in 1979 by Margaret Thatcher, Sewell sheltered his old mentor from the media.) Brian graduated in 1957 and worked as a specialist in Old Masters at Christie’s auction house before becoming an art dealer. He also did his National Service in the Royal Army Service Corps. He started as an art critic in the early eighties and hasn’t looked back.

Brian sewell 2Brian’s well known for his received pronunciation, given with an air that makes him sound like an upper class twit to those all but the upper classes, I guess. But his personality and playful manner endears his style to many, and really, I mean really, upsets a few. His style of critique is challenging, precise and very unfashionably ‘old British’. He does not suffer fools lightly and has, like all of us, his favourites and his hates. Here is one of his most famous quotes, summing up David Hockney’s exhibition at the RA: “Hockney is not another Turner expressing, in high seriousness, his debt to the old master; Hockney is not another Picasso teasing Velázquez and Delacroix with not quite enough wit; here Hockney is a vulgar prankster, trivialising not only a painting that he is incapable of understanding and could never execute, but in involving him in the various parodies, demeaning Picasso too.” Here is another (you must read this with an upper class British accent): Damien Hirst is “fucking dreadful”. You do really have to love him (and I’m a fan of Hirst).

If I have piqued your interest I do implore you to read Brians coloum in the Evening Standard and here is a little gem he did on Tracy Emin recently. Love him or hate him, you cannot ignore him. – Deskarati

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2 Responses to Brian Sewell

  1. alfy says:

    A very interesting subject for a deskarati post. I too am an admirer of Brian Sewell for a number of reasons. I like man whose accent is so “upper” that he makes the Queen sound a bit common. More particularly I admire his lone stand against the forces in the “official” art of the state subsidised galleries.
    It was in the 1920s that Marcel Duchamp displayed a porcelain urinal as an artwork. This ultimately led to the view that “art” was whatever the “artist” said it was.
    Over the second half of the 20C the lunatics took over the asylum. A whole tribe of charlatans realised that they could make a great deal of money by presenting almost anything as art, to gullible millionaires, and state gallery directors. No talent, technique or skill was needed, only the ability to shock or be different.
    Brian Sewell’s was one of the few voices raised against this pernicious trend. A logical extension of the take-over by charlatans was the denigration of any other kind of art, particularly representational work. Needless to say, the broad mass of the public were unimpressed by the acceptance of rubbish as art, and they continued to buy reproductions of representational work.
    Sewell was a great comfort to ordinary art lovers in thinking they were not alone, in appreciating colour, form, composition, texture, pattern, skill and technique in the kinds of art that they loved.
    Perhaps I should say that I don’t agree with all of Sewell’s critiques. I think he is unfair to David Hockney who is an artist of real talent, having produced some most interesting work by using a wide range of modern materials and techniques not available to artists of earlier centuries.
    Unfortunately, I have not seen Sewell’s TV series on the pilgrimage to Santiago de Compostella, but the short clip gives a feel of it, particularly when he attends High Mass in the Cathedral. He was clearly deeply moved by the experience and his comments on his loss of faith, and his wish not to find it again were extremely honest. For me, one of his most significant gestures in his anguish beside the great column, was the hand and knuckles near his mouth.
    We all know that infants suck their thumbs, and even unborn children in the womb do this. It is possibly the oldest behavioural reflex. When a mature man does this he is profoundly upset and seeking comfort in this childlike gesture.
    There are three elements which may be involved in a religious service such as the Santiago Mass; the aesthetic, the emotional and the spiritual. They rarely all come together. A concert may be aesthetically and emotionally powerful but with no spiritual content. Many ordinary services lack an aesthetic quality. Clearly, the Santiago Mass rang all three bells for Brian Sewell.

    • Deskarati says:

      Great comment Alfy. It seems that although we will not agree on contemporary art we do share a love of Sewell as a man. We also seem to be fans of David Hockney.

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